Sunday, April 08, 2007

Rambam's Five Categories of Mesora.

I am in the middle of reading a so far excellent book by Professor Moshe Halbertal, Al Derech Ha’emet. It discusses Ramban’s systematic approach to the whole corpus of Torah addressed in his many writings. In the first chapter he contrasts Rambam and Ramban’s understanding of what exactly is Mesora, using Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot and Ramban’s critical comments. This brings me to the subject of this post and hopefully a few more on the subject.

In his introduction to his Pirush Hamishna – commentary on Mishna – Rambam lays out five categories of Mesora:

1. Commentaries on the written Law that go back to Sinai – When Moshe received the Torah; he received at the same time explanations on how the specific laws have to be put into practice. An example Rambam uses; when God told Moshe “You shall sit in Sukkoth seven days” (Vaykra 23:42) He at the same time told him that only males have to sit, the sick and travelers are exempt, use only things that grow from the ground as cover (schach)and not wool or silk nor utensils even if they originate from something that grew, both eating and sleeping should be in the Sukkah for seven days, the Sukkah should be at least seven Tefachim by seven by ten high. In other words the basic rules needed for the practical execution of the Mitzvah were given orally at the same time the written Law was given. Rambam, unlike many of his predecessors among the Geonim, holds that these rules remained with us unchanged and without any dispute all the way back to Moshe at Sinai[1]. I will discuss this further when I talk about category 3.

2. Halacha Lemoshe Misinai – These are those halachot that we received from Sinai that are not mentioned or alluded to in the written law. Rambam lists, in his words, “most” of them in the introduction. Here too there is no conflict and the Mesora is reliable all the way back to Moshe.

3. Laws that were deduced using the hermeneutical system received from Sinai. This system allows us to expand the scope of the given law and apply it to new situations that were not directly addressed by it. The idea is to define the underlying reason and logic of the written law and the received explanation (category 1) thereby applying that reasoning to the pertinent case brought in front of the court. This is one of the areas where differences of opinion occurred and the court ruled according to the majority opinion. Each court when confronted with the same question, reevaluated it, discussed it and voted. The ruling could change from generation to generation as the court was reconstituted and the majority vote changed. It is in this area that we are ordered to follow the ruling of the court that is extant in our time notwithstanding earlier rulings.

Here again Rambam disagrees with his predecessors. The Geonim held that disagreements occurred in all these three categories and as time passed the transmission of both oral categories (1 and 2) got faulty. Rambam vehemently disagrees and uses very sharp language accusing those who held that position of ignorance in the ways of the Talmud, the inability to distinguish between transmitted laws and innovations and of weakening the authority (to be exact causing suspicion) of the transmitters of the Kabbalah (Mesora).The basis for both opinions is the Tosefta brought down in Sanhedrin 88b which describes the procedures of how Halachik questions were decided during the time of the Sanhedrin. After describing the different levels of courts and how they ruled according to the majority, the Tosefta comments that originally there were not many disagreements. It is only the pupils of Shamai and Hillel, not having acquired enough experience, who got into disagreements. Rambam and the Geonim disagree as to what type of Halacha the Tosefta is referring to. The Geonim saw it as all-inclusive while Rambam held it was only in those that were innovated using the Hermeneutical rules or those soon to be listed in categories 4 and 5. Explaining his position Rambam gives us some interesting insights into his way of thinking. He explains that the earlier generations were better trained and therefore had a much stronger consensus of the underlying reasons for the different laws. Being of equal intellectual capacity and the same information at hand, there was much less room for disagreements. In fact very few occurred and those were easily resolved by majority rule. They were so rare and insignificant that hardly a trace remains in our sources. He also notes that we cannot fault the later generations for disagreeing because we cannot expect all to be equal to Yehoshua and Pinchas! Still we must follow the rulings of the contemporary Beit din based on the ruling of “you should ask the Judge that will be at that time” (Devarim 17:9).

4. The rules - Derabanans - that each generation of courts imposed as a protection to the De’oraitot – the Torah laws. There we find arguments about whether they should be put into place. Some remained localized, if the Sanhedrin did not impose them, others became generalized. The latter cannot be overruled ever, even by future Batei Din, not even by Elyahu. However for them to take on this strict aspect, they had to be accepted and spread throughout the Jewish communities.

5. New Takanot and Minhagim imposed by Beit Din to address issues that crop up as the world changes. Once imposed and agreed to by the nation they cannot be changed and remain in place forever.

I am planning to address each of these categories in future posts, compare each with Rambam’s discussions of them in Sefer Hamitzvot and Mishne Torah and Ramban’s position on each of them.

However we already get a picture of Rambam’s view of Mesora. There is an immutable core comprising of the written law as interpreted by the Oral Law that we received simultaneously and unwritten halachot that Moshe received at Sinai – Halachot Lemoshe Misinai. That core Mesora is unchanged and has been jealously guarded and transmitted to us in its original form in the Mishna, Tosefta, Sifrei, Sifra and the Talmud. Although it is not always obvious from the text which Halacha belongs to these categories, a thorough and careful analysis of the text will yield a clear answer. Of course Ramban will show us that he does not buy Rambam’s analysis on specific cases, and therefore accepts the Geonim position. But that is for another day. Then Rambam has three categories of innovative laws some based on hermeneutics, others as Derabanans while others as Takanot and Minhagim. In these later categories disagreements are common.

More to come on this.

Moadim Lesimcha.

[1] Sinai in this context generally means from Moshe. The Rishonim argued about when exactly Moshe received all the Laws, whether they were given all at once or piecemeal over the 40 years. I am not sure about Rambam’s position, though here, in the introduction to his commentary on Mishna, he seems to hold that all were given to Moshe at once and he released them over time to the people. I do not have it clear at this moment how he holds in his other writings.


  1. The Rambam's underlying message is that Torah is a field of chochma, and should not be reduced to the opinions and beliefs of particular sages.

    It is easy to walk away from the Talmud with the (false) impression that it is nothing more than the arbitrary, subjective views of individual rabbis. However, this impression can only be sustained on superficial inspection. Deeper investigation reveals that there is an underlying framework of halacha that unites all of the Rabbis and within which they conduct their analyses. This is why the Rambam criticizes those who fail to see this as ignorant - they have not delved into the area at a deep enough level to recognize the system of chochma behind the details.

    Hence, as in any field of knowledge, there is a core of agreed-upon principles and data in halacha, as well as theoretical dimensions and hypothetical cases that are the subject of discussion or dispute.

  2. Rabbi Maroof, well put. It is however interesting to see where Ramban places that core of unchanging data and how he defends the geonim against Rambam's onslaught. It has implications to a vast area of philosophy of halacha including practical pessakim in many areas. Ramban's approach has won out as seen by Maran in Beit yossef who grew up on the Torah of the Talmidei Haramban (Ran and his talmidim) and subsequent developments. It also explains some of the early resistance to Mishne torah.I will address these areas as i go along readingf and learning the issue.

  3. If even the 5th degree of the mesorah is immutable, what is the practical difference between the 5 degrees.

    Why did Megillat Esther make such a big deal out of 'a decree sealed with the King's signet cannot be overturned' when apparently Jewish jurisprudence works the same way? How can mortal men successfully make rulings that last eternally? Why is there no apparent scope in the system for change on decided issues?

  4. Larry, good question. The 3d category gives the most flexibility as we will see as i move along it is where most practical applications fall under. The fifth category will not change if it is spread among all communities however I believe that there are some takkanot that took hold at a time and then lost traction. One case in point is Moredet which I will discuss.

    But your point is well taken and without Sanhedrin we are hobbled thus the prayer Hashiva Shofeteinu takes on such poignancy.

  5. I believe a careful reading of the beginning of the translations of the Rambam's Introduction to his Perush on the Mishna by Rav Shilat and Rav Kapach will show that the Rambam holds that the Chumash was not given simultaneously with the Torah at Sinai. The Torah at Sinai was composed soley of the Mitzvot in do or don't do format followed by instructions on how to do or don't do them. These mitzvot which the Rambam in the Hebrew translations call "mikraot" were eventually written down by the people and memorized and their instructions were transferred orally. Only later were references to the Torah from Sinai placed by HaShem in the Chumash dictated to Moshe and written down fully only at his death. This opinion is similar to Rav Shrira Gaon's Letter beginning Perek 5, the Ramchal in the last entry of his Fundamentals, Rav Hirsch Shmot 21:2 and others. Therefore according to the foregoing the Rambam would disagree with your first sentence: "When Moshe received the Torah; he received at the same time explanations on how the specific laws have to be put into practice." that there was a simultaneous giving of the Chumash and the Mitzvot with their instructions. I would appreciate your comment on this reading of the Rambam.

  6. דע, כי כל מצווה שנתן הקב"ה למשה רבנו ע"ה, נתנה לו בפירושה: היה אומר לו המצווה, ואחר כך אומר לו פירושה ועניינה, וכל מה שהוא כולל ספר התורה

    I think it is clear. But I agree with you that the final text was only written down by Moshe at Arvot Moav. I understand that there was a specific language for the mitzvah as Rambma's example is Basukkot Teshvu and a pirush simultaneously as he lists. that language was memorized and written down by the people and eventually written down by Moshe adding context al pi hashem.

    ואחרי כן היו כל העם הולכים ללמד איש לאחיו מה ששמעו מפי משה, וכותבים המצווה ההיא במגילות. וישוטו השרים על כל ישראל ללמוד ולהגות, עד שידעו בגרסה המצווה ההיא וירגילו לקרותה. ואחר כך ילמדום פירושי המצווה ההיא הנתונה מאת השם. והפירוש ההוא היה כולל עניינים. והיו כותבים המצווה ולומדים על פה הקבלה.

    I wrote a post on the same a few weeks ago.